For Virginia tobacco producer Kevin Trent, wine grapes looked like a good alternative enterprise a few years ago. But the profit just hasn't been there, and he did not feel optimistic about the commodity as 2008 began.

Trent, who farms near Brookneal Va., said 2007 wasn't a good year for grapes, largely because of the Easter Freeze.

“We had five hard nights of freezing weather,” Trent said. “Our grapes had all bloomed out. We had irrigation and used it some, but we were afraid we would make it worse if we kept using it. We decided it was a battle we couldn't win, so we turned it off. The freeze wound up cutting us back to about half a crop.”

Trent is not happy with the price situation either. “We contract with a local winery, and we haven't had an increase in price since 2003,” he said. “I have thought about giving up the contract and just putting my grapes on the open market, but that involves a lot of risk.”

Wineries don't always accept uncommitted grapes, which is just one of several reasons that wine grapes are a very risky business, said Carl Cantaluppi, North Carolina Extension horticulture agent. “They have such a specific use: They have to go to a winery. Remember, you can't eat a wine grape fresh. It is a growth market only as long as there are enough wineries to take the product.”

Owning a winery yourself takes some of the risk out of wine grapes. “If you make your own wine, you can control your end price to some extent,” said Cantaluppi.

There have been an abundance of lessons learned about getting into wine grapes in the Southeast, says Jack Loudermilk, who recently retired as the Extension chairman in Yadkin County N.C.

“Vineyards have always been an extremely costly, long-term enterprise, and there is still some question about what kind of payback you can expect,” said Loudermilk, whose county near Winston-Salem was at the center of the wave of new vineyards in recent years.

“In 2008, there may be some potential for grape producers to provide grapes for some of the wineries or for other uses. But unless they have a market for their grapes and unless they are in it for the long haul, I question whether the dollars will be there for them.”

Rather than a lot of new entries, Loudermilk thinks there will be some changing of hands of existing vineyards.

To have a future in grape production, you need an arrangement with a winery, and it would be better to have more than one, says Loudermilk.

“You should know what varieties will be accepted, what payment per ton will be paid, and what quality the winery expects both in chemical terms and physical terms. And it would be wise to learn what the winery expects it will need four or five years down the road.”

That was a frequent mistake when vineyards first started going in, he said. “What the wine producers needed and what the growers thought they should produce were not always the same. Some growers thought they could sell any kind of grape that would make wine. But those weren't necessarily varieties the wineries could use, or they might not be of the quality the winery needed.”

At the Southern Piedmont Research Station in Blackstone Va., a research vineyard fared well in 2007.

“Despite the damaging Easter Weekend freeze, when the vineyard temperatures dropped to 18°F, crop yield per vine was close to target with many of the varieties,” said Virginia Extension Viticulturist Tony Wolf. “Varieties that yielded full crops due to late bud break and/or more fruitful secondary shoots include Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre, Norton, Petit Verdot, Rousanne, and Vidal.”

The 2007 harvest of the variety evaluation planting at Blackstone was relatively trouble-free, said Wolf, and the fruit integrity and primary fruit chemistry were above average. The lack of appreciable rainfall, coupled with the use of our on-site irrigation system, resulted in a harvest of rot-free, high quality fruit.